All We Got

They don’t give nothing away
You gotta fight for your way
And that don’t take nothing away
Cause at the end of the day

Music is all we got
Music is all we got
Isn’t this all we got?
So we might as well give it all we got

Happy Thoughts

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Don’t forget the happy thoughts
All you need is happy thoughts
 

I’ve held on to this song (along with the rest of the tape) in the past few days, albeit tightly. I’ve found solace in peace and quiet, albeit briefly. It’s still surprising to wake up sometimes and realize you’re all grown up and you can only regress to only so much. Sometimes, when you feel beyond sad, that there’s not a name for it anymore, maybe something indescribable will also pull you above the surface and allow you to breathe freely again, to feel lighter again. This song is a blanket that has kept me safe.

“Don’t you color out…
Stay in the line, stay in the line”

Thank you, Chance.

ALBUM: ‘Failing Forward’ – Curtismith

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At the beginning of Kendrick Lamar’s self-anthem ‘i’ was a proclamation: “He’s not a rapper, he’s a writer!” which, taken at face value, can be misleading: a denigration of the former. What this line alludes to is Kendrick’s disassociation from the venomous culture of rap, by propagating this very medium to fully express himself. In many ways, this applies to the direction and work of Logiclub hiphop artist Mito Fabie, also known as Curtismith. While it’s easy to regard his moniker only as a tongue-in-cheek reference to Anne Curtis, it is also a jab, a rally against an industry that puts a premium on celebrities-turned-recording-artists, often on the sole account of celebrity. And by adopting this name, he’s engaging himself to the counterculture of those on the other side of the field.

Curtismith’s rap persona is a fairly reserved one, easily shrugged off as the corny and divisive – but convenient – term, “conyo rap,” presumably on the basis of rapping in English and lack of being “street.” Even at his most brash moments (“Let me spit my game / And let these rappers borrow” from ‘No Sleep’), his style and candor is tamer compared to battle rap artists. His presence is reminiscent of Kid Cudi’s, specifically during the making of Kanye West’s magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. During their time in Hawaii, Kid Cudi opted to sleep in while everyone’s out playing basketball. Cudi recounted, “I always had jet lag out there while other people were in the Hawaii groove already, but it worked out, because by the time they were done hooping, I was refreshed and ready to go.” Both are perceived as odd players simply for not fitting the norm, the pattern.

In a span of six months since his first mixtape, IDEAL, was released, Curtismith dropped his follow-up eight-track Failing Forward EP, which is hardly a concept album. His song structures are characteristically liberal non-sequiturs, and there’s a different cadence in his voice – his flow – that doesn’t quite blend with the beat, but has a tone of its own. It’s not melodic, is monotonous even, but almost always conversational, colloquial. He rarely raises his voice, isn’t calculating with his tempos, and yet manages to execute a style that not only makes him easy to listen to, but even to sing along with, with the EP’s strength lying mostly on its hooks. In hindsight, the EP doesn’t try too hard to suggest its need to be disarmingly brilliant and groundbreaking, but to challenge perception, narrate stories eloquently via the orthodox ways of rap – which is still fairly a minority in local music.

There’s no significant stretch between IDEAL and Failing Forward in terms of production. The bulk of the beats used in both mixtapes are familiar, bordering nostalgic. Curtismith has a flair for utilizing beat structures with softer and simpler textures that more of create, enhance, or sustain a mood rather than provoke. Only ‘No Sleep’ (credited as a Stimp C production, but more recognizable as a sample from Alina Baraz and Galimatias’s ‘Fantasy’) echoed a hint of aggression – both lyrically and sonically. Curtismith’s team-up with local producer Frank Savage on ‘Saucin’ incorporated Post Malone’s breakout hit, ‘White Iverson’, with a less dragging execution compared to its original. Failing Forward’s best production moment is arguably from his collaboration with CRWN, whose Midas touch in ‘LDR’ maximized the most out of the song without resorting to predictable gimmicks. It smoothly anchors Curtismith’s odd-timed verses in between strong hooks, easier to remember not just the lyrics but also details, breaks, and pauses.

In a TEDxTalk session, Curtismith stripped his rapper persona and told the story of Mito Fabie in a setting not too different from a studio or stage where he normally performs. His talk, “The Merits of Failure,” narrated a protracted path to achieve and cultivate success through music. Failing Forward – and in extension, IDEAL as well – is his artistic and introspective journal that recounted his mistakes, among many things. It is not meant to be regarded as an outline to anyone else’s story but his, but somehow, it bore similarities on how we approach (and as he rapped oftentimes, his fear that results to running away) our dreams and struggles: his was rebellion. It manifested strongly on ‘Ignant’ (“Teaching you to love all of the chains, but I was different”), where as strong as his defiance is, so is his desire to prevail. This theme recurs in the EP, presenting in different situations: about growing up, in ‘Afterhours’ (“Sharks in the dark trying to spark with the kids in their heart / Do my things from a broken home / But never lose your soul”); on coming to terms with the life choices we’re forced out of the guarantee of security versus pursuing passion in ‘No Sleep’, featuring a guest spot from rapper Simian; and in his title track, ‘Failing Forward’, where he fosters his faith with fight (I’m putting my faith in God / This spirit is all I got / But let me show what I do / You know He’s doing magic when He working through you”). While ‘Lookin Up’ is Curtismith thinking out loud and spitting rapid thoughts as they came, the track that best captured his headspace is ‘Note II Self’, which includes a sound bite from a 1996 Tupac interview. This is a song to and from each of his personas, as Mito and Curtismith, of self-love and preservation, of finding and living his purpose.

In the John C. Maxwell book, Failing Forward: How To Make the Most of Your Mistakes, there is a palpable message that cuts through its namesake EP, one that separates achievers from average people: their perception of and response to failure. Indicative of potential, Failing Forward EP had Curtismith carve out his own place through his music, using his own missteps to advance further and forward.

Download the full EP

TRACK: ‘LDR’ – Curtismith (Prod. by CRWN)

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For all its commercialized machismo, hiphop is, in fact, not subjugated to the male ego. It is easy to overlook the wide-ranging themes of hiphop, as it is often portrayed as a bedlam of violence, addiction, and a fleeting, purposeless diversion for those who are closely engaged with it. Clearly, it’s dismissive and barely scratching the surface. In fact, rappers with imperceptible level of notoriety are just as capable of writing the most powerful and most affecting songs unrelated to politics, race, class, fame, and wealth – but women. And not in any way patterned after hiphop’s murky history of misogyny and objectification, but of genuine, romantic nature. The point is, a hiphop song and a love song can be mutually exclusive. Rap, as opposed to a ballad or serenade, is no less of an authentic profession of adoration and love.

‘LDR’, a standout track from Failing Forward, the latest EP of Logiclub hiphop artist Curtismith, is a wide-eyed declaration of love, but without a trace of desperation or display of grandiosity. Even the inflection on “I cannot deny my desire, I’m a monster / But goddamn, girl I want you,” sounds like he’s thinking out loud more than actually saying it to someone else. Produced by frequent collaborator and fellow Logiclub member, CRWN, ‘LDR’s beat structure is as straightforward as its lyrical content, yet gorgeously helmed in stark simplicity. While it’s not Curtismith’s lyrically strongest song, it is one of his most charismatic – “See, your eyes never lie with a vodka / Come on, fly with Sinatra” which references the opening lines to Frank Sinatra’s ‘Come Fly With Me’, wherein the man heeds the woman to escape or elope somewhere distant and enjoy exotic alcohol, which is about as long distance as their relationship can possibly get.

Whether you take Curtismith’s words at face value or dig deeper into them, it’s undeniable how he inordinately presents details to tell his stories, a self-confessed idealist whose songs are definitely worth scratching the surface.

 

TRACK: ‘Orange’ – Lions and Acrobats

 

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Photo: Marty Floro

Lions and Acrobats is a band with a flair for drama. How that sonically translates to their song structures often results on them wielding output blending characteristically emo rock lyrics (confessional – in fact, the unofficially released “Cloud” is arguably their most popular material to date) and “diluted” new wave post-hardcore. Their latest single, “Orange,” arrived almost three years after the release of their debut album, Points & Perspectives – a record filled with non-committal grit two steps behind its live form.

“Orange” is an incubated effort that ironically needs more work. Though it has a technically stronger footing compared to most of the band’s earlier songs, it begs for cohesion, a well-defined construction. My problem isn’t with its length, but with a song that long, it comes with caution: necessity. There are moments that buoy aimlessly and are therefore, can be done without. There’s also the damning element of balance: with three guitars, the burden to balance and to create dimension lies on its rhythm section, and in it, the drums fell short.

Like most Lions songs, “Orange” is a well-worded composition that lingers on redemption, strongly on the fact that when these songs are performed live, at best, they are uncompromising and even guttural at times. That’s why the recorded material sounding inferior to its live counterpart is just frustrating. Combined with “Cloud,” Lions and Acrobats’ latest effort doesn’t seem to be making an artistic shift (nothing obvious, at least), but allows space for more experimentation. After all, they are a great live act that can turn into an aural beast if they want to, but the pertinent question is how to collar that intensity beyond a live spectacle.

Love In The State Of Undress

In 1980, Barry White boldly announced to the world, “There’s no better music than love makin’ music,” in his distinctive bass-baritone voice. The song, “Love Makin’ Music”, peaked only at #25 at the US R&B charts in that year, yet its message remains to be an enduring testament to this day.

In 2013, a decade after White’s death, years after R&B groups (the Jodeci’s, IMx’s, and the Next’s of the world) reached saturation point; and the music of R. Kelly, Usher, Keith Sweat, Ginuwine, Babyface, and their ilk, who made hip-swinging and gyrating pass of as a romantic gesture, has weaned off; came the likes of Miguel and The Weeknd, who have scratched and dug deep into the surface of narcotic R&B and treaded on the dangerous thrills of “love-making,” only now, it’s simply referred to as “fucking.”

And there was a premise to substantiate what Barry White sang more than 20 years ago, a daring promise that went like this: “Your pleasure is my mission,” a half-croon in the first few lines of “Smilky,” a song that bluntly spewed lines like, “You’re all I wanna do,” when two decades ago, it was only subtly suggested by White as, “Just feel our bodies blend.”

Things have obviously changed.

The band, SUD, categorizes their music as alternative soul, which, for most, is merely a euphemism for “baby-making music,” which is not exactly the case, not to mention, carelessly limiting. Currently composed of Sud Ballecer (vocals, guitars), Sammy Valenia (guitars), Marc Reyes (bass), Kohl Aguilar (keys), Carlos Dela Fuente (saxophone), Jimbo Cuenco (drums), and Carlo Maraingan (percussions), their instruments, in theory, are capable of expanding their sonic landscape from good, old-fashioned R&B to as far as funk, dabs of jazz, and even fusion. But SUD seems disinterested in guessing games, and not just when it comes to what kind of music they play, but what it’s all about, and to some extent – for whom.

Three years is too long a foreplay, with endless teasing in “Smilky,” “Make U Say,” (with references to asses and getting high – presumably not pharmacologically-induced, but metaphorically, i.e., during climax), and even the loosely sexual “Safer” (which I can poorly describe as: from a slow burner to fireworks – the drums went wild the fuck out towards the end) – which capitalized on building tension: basically a prelude to sex.

But in the overall scheme of things, this is why SUD isn’t exactly about the baby-making music business. This is not about moral turpitude (give me a break), but simply a fact. R. Kelly built an empire out of singing about bumping and grinding and “sex(ing),” and no one has hosed him with holy water yet. There is no full commitment to that in SUD’s part. Because sex doesn’t – and will never – monopolize the masses. There’s an equal, if not larger, commodity to that: love. There remains an affectionate emotion that gives SUD romantic sensibilities and amorous passion. A song that, no matter how admittedly cheesy this description may sound, gives them heart. “Sila” is an earnestly written, age-old, ‘you and me against the world’ ode that works cleverly because of its straightforward simplicity. This song alone casts a long shadow among its peers; that despite all the carnal pleasures and worldly gratifications SUD try their damnedest to provide, their music appeals primarily to feelings, and senses are merely secondary. The sensual indulgence palpable in their music serves as either precursors or byproducts, but never as the be-all and end-all. Simply put: it’s not black-and-white lust. Sorry to say, they’re not your guys for that (though this is relatively debatable). That’s what R. Kelly’s for.

At their most erotic form, SUD manufactures “panty-dropper moments” with wordplay and well-timed sax solos. In their songs, “fuck” functions both as an expletive and obscenity. They provide a somewhat liberating, enthralling space where sex is not taboo, not hushed, but is actually the basis, the point of discussion.

Sex as a form of poetry isn’t new, and it’s been peddled in many tacky, tasteless ways that it loses what meaning it has – romantic, passionate, or just a combustion of hormones at play. In fact, there is no life-and-death need to force it in the art of music. However, dynamics plays a crucial part in SUD’s music. Lose it, and they’re a relatively decent-sounding, ostentatiously numbered band. Force it, and they’re just ridiculously pretentious creeps who wanted to be Casanovas with microphones. Thing is, with sex, you need an insanely good combination of instinct and rhythm. And these guys happened to be in band who zero in on that.

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SUD will be releasing their debut album, SKIN, on January 30, 2016, at Route 196, Katipunan Ext., Quezon City. It will be a joint release with spoken word group, Words Anonymous.

 

 

#TDEAppreciationWeek #ImLateFam

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Black Hippy

The only music collective series I massively enjoyed tuning to, that has churned out a consistently good succession of tracks, is Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music Fridays. The series resurfaced a few days ago (if I am to believe Kim Kardashian’s tweet) with Kanye’s lament on kin and friendship, ‘Real Friends’.

I had no idea that sometime in 2012, Top Dawg Entertainment, the label that manages powerhouse rap collective, Black Hippy – comprised of Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q – released a week-long series of individual tracks for their fans.

I am bugging out because Kendrick’s cut, titled ‘Westside, Right On Time’ (feat. Young Jeezy) was performed in one of my all-time live performances of his – that’s why it felt too familiar when I heard the full version.

Right at the beginning.

Allow me to consume this.

***

Unrelated:

I want to throw this yet another interpolation, this time from soul trio KING’s ‘Hey’, which was sampled by Kendrick on ‘Chapter 6’, his shortest track on Section.80. Because why not.